For months, news of the Zika virus has spread with seemingly daily updates of the disease growing rapidly and causing more harm to unborn babies. But finally, some good news: scientists now know how Zika debilitates the body and have an idea of how they can harness cells already in the body to stop the disease in its tracks. It’s a huge development in a disease that has swept the world with nothing to slow it down up until this point.
Zika is a Mysterious Virus
Over the last 12 months, Zika has been on a tear across the world, with reported cases in 52 countries, including densely reported cases in poor areas of Brazil, Cuba, Papa New Guinea, and the Philippines. Not only has the mosquito-borne virus spread very quickly, but it has left devastating effects – pregnant women who have the disease have birthed babies been born with shattering physical and mental birth defects and handicaps, especially small skulls and brains.
Part of the danger of Zika is how mysterious is – scientists spent months not knowing its effect on the body or why it could often take months to diagnose an infection. After all, it’s incredibly difficult to find a cure for something if you don’t even know how it works. Plus, the spread is concentrated in certain areas of the world and seems to have an uneven effect on some people, as it leads to huge problems in some people while barely affecting others.
A Cure in the Works
The first step for scientists is to find out how Zika penetrates the human body. New scientific research has found that Zika blocks around 20% of the brain’s progenitor cells from creating new neurons, which basically means it stops certain brain cells from dividing to create more cells. It does all this without alerting the body’s immune system, which is why it can take so long to realize someone has been infected.
Now that scientists have a better understanding of Zika and how it works, researchers at the University of Texas Medical Center and the University of Massachusetts Medical School have made huge breakthroughs in a way to combat the virus.
For so long, Zika has seemed like an indestructible disease, but now scientists may have found a weakness: a small protein naturally produced in the body, called interferon-induced protein 3, or IFITM3, has been proven in humans and mice to reduce the chance that Zika will infect brain cells.
That means that the potential solution to many of Zika’s problems has been in our bodies the entire time. We all have varying levels of IFITM3 in our bodies naturally, which may be the link between why some people are affected much more severely than others. Researchers have found that people with a genetic variant of the IFITM3 gene are more likely to develop a strong case of the disease. Relating to Zika, it seems that the virus has a much more difficult time penetrating people’s bodies that have boosted IFITM3 levels, while people with low levels of IFITM3 made it easier for the virus to break through the cell walls and cause an infection. In other words, IFITM3 acts as a barrier of entry to Zika and stops it from spreading to surrounding cells. Even after being infected, a high level of IFITM3 can stop Zika in its tracks, basically leaving it in limbo with nowhere to go and no parts of the body to infect until it dies off and leaves the patient unscathed.
Although this breakthrough is incredibly significant, there is still a long way to go until we have a treatment, cure, or prevention for Zika. First, tests will need to be done on cells that aren’t extracted in a lab and that are more telling of a real-world scenario.
Researchers also plan to look for molecules that could increase IFITM3 levels, which would be beneficial in fighting Zika and many other diseases.
One of the many positive aspects from this research is how quickly results were found. Within just eight weeks of receiving a Zika sample, University of Massachusetts researchers were able to harness their existing work with similar diseases like dengue and influenza to have a good starting point for looking at Zika. Although that pace will be hard to maintain going forward, it is a good sign that a team of dedicated scientists can make great progress.
Although Zika has wrecked havoc around the world and led to consequences with unborn babies that we can’t even see, there is now hope that this mysterious virus can soon be under control.